Think you know all about Ristorante Nicola? Think again! Having a bit of a shaky past few years, Nicola, as it is known to locals, has stepped its game up and invested in a total transformation of the restaurant. Revamping their image by bringing in a new executive chef, new menus and hopefully, a whole new reputation.
I was invited in to preview the menu items from Nicola’s latest and greatest Executive Chef, Justin Melnick. Yes folks, that means the meal was complimentary but let’s get real…free food can still suck. Luckily, this was not the case for Ristorante Nicola, I swear.
Although I had been to Ristorante Nicola a few times before, I was never particularly impressed with the food. Was it fine? Ya, but so is a Whopper Jr. from Burger King. When I go out to eat I don’t want my food to fall within the “fine” category.
Stepping into Nicola I was immediately impressed with the lavish decor, smiling staff and attentiveness. The decor could have very well been the same as it has been on the other occasions I’ve been, but the staff really made me take note of my surroundings, setting the stage for an enjoyable dinging experience.
Although menus had been brought to our table, Chef Melnick asked if it would be alright if he could just cook up a mixture of items that were on his new menu. LE DUH, I never say no to a chefs suggestions and am rarely disappointed when they do.
Within a matter of minutes a beautifully arranged Antipasti plate was in front of my eyes. In-house cured beef, marinated olives, grilled vegetables, and beef stuffed aranaci were just a few aspects of this dish. Unfortunately, the Antipasti was more visually pleasing than tasteful. None of the components seemed to have much flavor on their own and it was only when I topped the foccacia bread that was already at our table with these items that I started to fully enjoy it. Sure, there is a lot going on in a platter like this but it didn’t set the best presidence for the rest of the meal. I whispered to myself in my head, “oh please dont suck” as the next course arrived.
Next up was the salad course. It is a very rare occasion that I get overly excited about lettuce no matter where I am but let me just tell you – the Barbabietole salad here is fucking delicious. It consists of golden beets, goat cheese, arugula, almonds and blood orange vinaigrette. I KNOW, RIGHT? In my mind, it is the epitome of the perfect summer salad. I also tried the Finocchio salad of shaved fennel, artichokes, shaved parmesan and arugula. It was decent enough but didn’t hold a candle to my beloved Barbabietole. If you like a salad with not such strong flavors, the Finocchio may be for you.
Feeling buzzed three martinis later settling in to our table and feeling comfortable among Ristorante Nicola’s stunning decor, our Primi course was served. Not one, not two, but THREE heaping plates of pasta graced the table. Chef Melnick explained each pasta to us and I’m 99% positive that neither my guest, Susie Drinks Dallas, nor I heard a word of as we stared at the pasta like rabid wolves. Chef Melnick and Nicola pride themselves on the fact that all of their pasta is made fresh and in house…and it shows. We were able to sample the Penne al Pesto, Tagliatelle Alla Bolognese and Gnocchi Al Sugo. Each were fantastic in their own right but the Gnocchi Al Sugo was the clear front-runner of the evening for us. Susie doesn’t even like gnocchi, in fact she hates it, but after trying Ristorante Nicola’s she promptly stated “I think I really like gnocchi now!” It was delicious and not what you would typically expect from a gnocchi. Very clearly homemade as you can still see the knife marks from cutting the pasta, the cloud-like puffy nuggets of potato pasta are sure to be the staple of Nicola’s new menu. The Tagliatelle Alla Bolognese may sound like your ordinary spaghetti with meat sauce, but it is so much more than that. Chef Melnick makes this classic dish all grown up and something that people over 5 years old will even crave. As for the Penne al Pesto, it wasn’t my favorite but that could be because I LOVE me some pesto. Some days I want to just spread it all over my face I love it so much. The pasta in this dish was delicious, of course, but the pesto sauce lacked the oomph that I hoped for. Points for the fried basil leaf that tops the dish off though.
Sensing the fact that we were ready to induce vomiting just so we could keep eating, Chef Melnick brought the Secondi course out and made it clear that he had tried his hardest to keep it “light,” or at least as light as an Italian main course can be. We were served the Capesante as well as the Agnello, both very different but equally delicious. The Capesante, described on the menu as pan seared sea scallops with summer squash puree and Meyer lemon gremola was exceptionally delicious. Not being a huge fan of scallops in general, I was very pleasantly surprised and went back for several bites of this flavorful but not overwhelming seafood dish. If the Capesante is light, the Agnello is anything but. Lamb lion with mint and berry compote, roasted cipolline onions and rapini is off the charts delicious. I had never had cipolline onions but apparently it is a common-ish thing in Italy and gives me all the more reason to move there and become clinically obese. Never in my life would I expect that an onion would be the shining star of one of my favorite dishes of all time, lamb, but it was. They complimented the tender meat perfectly and the compote provided just the right amount of bitterness to the dish. OH MY LAWD!
By no means did I need more food but it was just so good how could I stop? CLEARLY, I make sacrifices for you people, my divine readers, so I had to eat dessert. Chef Melnick admitted that the dessert menu is his next project for Nicola. Only a few changes have been made to the previous dessert menu, including using fresh ingredients, making things in-house and the addition of a gelato machine. I love any sort of frozen treat so my brain was ready to explode at the thought of fresh gelato topping off the delicious meal we had just consumed. I was immediately impressed with the smooth texture of the gelato and the simple flavors of vanilla and chocolate as well as lemon sorbet. Now, I will say that the lemon sorbet was so sour I had a minor seizure but I think I fit right in with the rest of the Highland Park ladies whose faces are so tight they look like they could melt in this Texas heat.
All in all, I recommend that everyone give Ristorante Nicola another chance to become one of your favorite Italian restaurants in the city. With an outstanding location, friendly staff and a new executive chef that is ready to steal the scene, you won’t be disappointed. I am looking forward to trying more of Chef Melnick’s menu items and following his career as a Boston transplant to our great city.